Exploring How a Boutique Winery Crafts a Diverse Wine Portfolio

By: Becky Garrison 

A quick glance at the wine list at Fullerton Wines, and one could easily be fooled into thinking this family-run venture is a large-scale commercial winery. Depending on one’s palate and pock-etbook, they can choose from Fullerton Wines’ Single Vineyard and Reserve wines, their nu-anced Five FACES line of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or their more playful and lighter Three Otters line of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rosé and Pinot Gris. So how can a boutique winery that produces 8,000 cases annually craft such a vast array of wines?

  The short answer? “I’m on the road a lot,” said Fullerton Wines’ winemaker, Alex Fullerton. The long answer starts with Alex’s lifelong passion for wine, cultivated through his family back-ground and education in viticulture and enology at Oregon State University. These factors gave him the tools he needed to craft distinctive wines that reflect the soil where they are grown.

A Wine-Loving Family

  Prior to founding Fullerton Wines, Eric and Susanne Fullerton, hailing from Denmark and Swe-den respectively, introduced their passion for wine to son Alex and his siblings. As a teenager, Alex caught the wine bug during a trip to France with his father. His interest continued when he journeyed with his family through Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and other Old World re-gions. During these trips, he learned how wine can serve as a bridge between cultures.

  After high school, Alex attended OSU, where he graduated with an economics degree before en-rolling in the Viticulture and Enology program. Here he obtained the scientific skills needed to fine-tune the informal education and refined palate he received from his parents.

  After college, Alex worked at Drylands Winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, as well as Pen-ner-Ash Wine Cellar and Bergström Wines, two wineries based in Newburg, Oregon. While get-ting hands-on experiences at Willamette Valley wineries, he gained an in-depth understanding of Willamette Valley soils. While the Valley’s soil is known internationally for producing award-winning Pinot Noirs, other area soils are ideally suited for growing white wines such as Char-donnay and Pinot Gris. In some instances, the same soil can produce both grapes.

  In 2011, Alex and his family put that Willamette Valley soil to the test. Despite a challenging growing season, they achieved success with the 468 Chardonnay vines planted at Estate Ivy Slope Vineyard, the formal name of the family’s backyard in Beaverton, Oregon, on the northern border of Willamette Valley.

  From the winery’s inception, the Fullertons have sought to produce quality fruit that mitigates the impact of climate change. They achieved this goal by employing organic and biodynamic farming methods such as permanent cover cropping and the use of organic fertilizers.

Looking to the Soil

  Since then, the Fullertons expanded their winery by exploring which grapes work best with the type of soil in a given vineyard. The soils present in the Willamette Valley are sedimentary, vol-canic, and loess. The history of how the soil came to be so varied is as complex as the grapes that grow from it.

  Flooding during the end of the last ice age formed the Willamette Valley and left behind a com-plex series of soils with unique characteristics. A repeatedly melting glacial dam led to Missoula flood deposits that were brought down the Columbia Gorge and eventually became the Valley’s floor soil.

  The flooding from the Pacific Ocean brought marine sediments, creating the soil that produces voluptuous blue and black fruit with rich aromatics, denser tannins and earth tones.

  Basalts originated due to lava flows from eastern Oregon, which gave rise to the volcanic hills in the Valley. Here, one finds grapes that produce red-fruited wines with soft tannins, a noteworthy acidity and spicy aromatics.

  Silt blown up from the Valley onto the northeast side of the Willamette Valley produced wind-blown loess. This soil tends to produce a darker flavor with grapes that have a round tannin structure and mixed berry aromas with undertones of exotic spices and briar patches.

A Vast Portfolio of Vineyards

  This year, Fullerton is working with a dozen vineyards nestled among the AVAs that spawn the entire Willamette Valley wine region. These AVAs and their corresponding vineyards include:

•   Willamette Valley (Apolloni Vineyard, Bennett Vineyard, Croft Vineyards)

•   Chehalem Mountain (ArborBrook Vineyard, Nemarniki Vineyard)

•   Dundee Hills (Bella Vida Vineyard)

•   Eola-Amity Hills (Bjornson Vineyard)

•   McMinnville (Momtazi Vineyard)

•   Ribbon Ridge (Lichtenwalter Vineyard)

•   Van Duzer Corridor (Wetzel Vineyard)

•   Yamhill-Carlton (Fir Crest Vineyard)

  This vast portfolio of vineyards are selected based on the Fullerton family connections. The net-work allows Alex to pinpoint the exact plots of land that will work best for producing particular types of wine. “This selection process preserves the heart and soul of the individual vineyards so they can all speak for themselves,” he said.

  According to Alex, this diversity allows him to blend with consistency, as he has a vast palette of grapes at his disposal that he can use to craft specific wines. Furthermore, by having vines scat-tered throughout the Willamette Valley, Fullerton Wines can still harvest grapes should one re-gion experienced a severe weather crisis such as drought or fire.

  Still, Alex admits it can be draining to run around sampling the vines. He decides when it’s time to harvest a particular vineyard based primarily on his taste assessment. A refractometer helps him assess the sugar and when to mash the grapes. Then he titrates the wine and uses a spec-trometer to evaluate the enzymes.

Less is More

  Zoning restrictions and the desire for a modernized facility led the family to move the winery to Corvallis, Oregon. Here Alex puts his “less is more” belief into practice. For example, the reality that wine can be made naturally with the aid of wild yeast, combined with Alex’s years of tasting hundreds of inoculated and spontaneous fermentations, led to his preference for spontaneous fermentations. He eschews fining, which results in producing vegan-friendly wines. Also, only select wines will receive cross-flow filtration once testing proves they will benefit from the pro-cess.

  Fullerton’s Single Vineyard and Reserve wines point to those selections that Alex believes come from the best barrels from their premier vineyard sites. Each bottle represents the unique condi-tions of that particular vineyard, and are marketed towards the serious wine connoisseur.

  Their Five FACES label, an acronym for the five Fullerton family members—Filip, Alex, Caro-line, Eric and Susanne—was created to make a true Willamette Valley blend. Five FACES Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend fruit from both volcanic, basalt-based soils and sedimentary, sand-stone-based soils. The complexity of this wine is due to their restrained use of aging in new French oak.

  Five FACES Pinot Noir tends to be on the lighter side, with refined tannins and high but well-integrated acidity. Notes of spice, smoke, and wet earth speak to the mixed berry aromas and fla-vors like fresh marionberry, strawberry, and cherry.

  Five FACES Chardonnay speaks to the growing acceptance of white wine grapes in the Willamette Valley. This wine has a medium-plus body with an elegant tension between acidity and texture. Underneath the intense aromas of apple, pear, brioche and citrus, is a sense of min-erality and spice notes.

  In 2014, Fullerton launched its Three Otters line with the intention of offering an intriguing value wine. The line is geared towards the broader market by appealing to consumers who are seeking a quality wine in the $15-$25 range. The label honors the family’s Northern European heritage, as three otters have rested prominently on the Fullerton family crest since the 13th century. This label also highlights the playful nature of this approachable, lighter and easier drinking wine.

  In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Three Otters line includes Pinot Noir Rosé and Pinot Gris. The rosé was crafted as the result of a friendly competition between Alex and his fa-ther, Eric. It has soft floral undertones and a light, breezy structure with notes of watermelon, strawberry and citrus. Even though Alex admits that Pinot Gris can be a “boring wine,” he want-ed to add one to the Three Otters line because he had a unique chance to work with some fifty-year-old Pinot Gris vines.

  While the winery is not open to the public, visitors who take a trip to Fullerton’s wine bar and tasting room in Northwest Portland can take a mini-tour through the range of wines produced by the entire Willamette Valley. That way, they can sit and savor without spending the day navi-gating traffic.

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One thought to “Exploring How a Boutique Winery Crafts a Diverse Wine Portfolio”

  1. Nine out of 10 wines are from Napa, with the only “outsider” being the Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. You have to go quite a ways down the list to find the second-placed wine, Quilceda Creek Cabernet, from Washington’s Columbia Valley, and it’s another fair step to the bronze-medal place, filled by Silver Oak Cellars’ Alexander Valley Cabernet.

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